Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Jew of Malta at the Swan Theatre Review

Review: Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta was perhaps the most popular of the 1590s, but for a modern viewer, the issue of the play’s overt anti-Semitism pushes itself forward as the most pressing concern. After the Holocaust, how it could it not? And the resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe today only adds to our unease about a play in which the Jewish anti-hero is such an outrageously roguish mass-murderer. The similarities and dissimilarities to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice are worth considering. Both Marlowe’s Barabas and Shakespeare’s Shylock are unpopular, miserly businessmen. However, Barabas is a pantomime figure, whereas Shylock is a more rounded character who seems to have a life beyond the play. Barabas’ boastfulness and failure are typical of the villains in traditional English ‘Vice’ plays. Marlowe adds a perceived Machiavellian self-interest to Barabas, but this is complementary to the villain rather than a departure. Shakespeare gives Shylock sympathetic lines, such as the ‘Hath not a Jew Eyes?’ speech, whilst still giving him detestable qualities, which makes him seem much more human and ‘real’ than Barabas. Still, there may be a little more to the Jew of Malta – both in terms of warming our attitude to Barabas and in terms of themes which extend beyond the play’s crude anti-Semitism. This RSC production is a success in bringing both aspects to the audience’s attention.

As the title suggests, the play is set on Malta, a largely Christian community with a Jewish minority, governed by the Knights of St John but nominally ruled and threatened by the growing menace of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. After neglecting to pay tribute to their Turkish overlords, an Ottoman fleet arrives to demand ten years’ worth of unpaid tribute. The Christian governor, Fernese, calls the island’s Jewish merchants to a meeting and delivers an ultimatum: turn over 50% of their wealth to the government, convert to Christianity and pay nothing, or lose everything. The other Jews agree to hand over half their wealth but Barabas, the wealthiest man on the island, refuses and so loses everything. In vengeance, Barabas engineers a feud between the governor’s son and his friend in which they are both slain. This leads to further crimes; including the poisoning of an entire nunnery (including his daughter Abigail), the murder of a friar, the framing of another friar for murder and the betrayal of the island to the Turks. Finally, Barabas even betrays the Turks but improvidently trusts Fernese and ends up himself betrayed to a grisly death.

The prologue, spoken by ‘Machiavel’, asks us to watch sympathetically the doings of his friend Barabas but, as many modern versions have emphasised, the most successful Machiavellian in the play is the arch hypocrite Fernese, who betrays his alliance with the Turks and in the end betrays Barabas, whilst accusing Barabas of treachery. One area where Fernese’s Machiavellianism falls down is his leaving Barabas alive after confiscating his property (as well as the other Jews who have lost half their wealth). The Prince says men will more easily forgive the murder of their father than the theft of their wealth and Barabas spells out the Machiavellian sentiment when he says that ‘I esteem the injury far less to take the lives of miserable men than be the causers of their misery’. Barabas can be Machiavellian at times, especially in the use of deception to achieve his aims, but he is far from perfect. In the end, in possibly the least psychologically realistic part of an often psychologically unrealistic play, Barabas trusts Fernese. In this production, Barabas’ explanatory soliloquy for this strange about face is put instead into the mouth of Abigail’s ghost/hallucination, which both humanises Barabas (is she the personification of his guilt, the personification of a subconscious desire to die?) and makes more believable the absurd and un-Machiavellian reasoning for trusting a man he has so badly harmed.

Barabas is converted
The prologue’s claim that ‘there is no sin but ignorance’ is given extra emphasis in this production by giving it both at the very beginning and then repeating it in its usual place slightly later on. The effect is to underline the anti-religious aspect of the play, which in itself take something away from the anti-Jew angle. If Marlowe was accusing all of ignorance, and including all religions in that accusation, then the specific aspects of anti-Judaism are simply facets of a broader assault taking in Christianity too. One has to be sceptical that the original audience would have viewed it that way (or the majority of them at any rate), but this interpretation does make the play more palatable to a modern, more secular audience, used to the anti-religious musings of Dawkins & co. Marlowe uses complex ironies to devastating effect, as in Fernese’s hypocritical exclamation that ‘covetousness, oh ‘tis a monstrous sin’ as he steals Barabas’ property. Even the friars argue about who will get Barabas’ wealth, and one exclaims upon Abigail’s death, ‘Ay, and a virgin too, that grieves me most’, suggesting that Ithamore may have been right when he said ‘hath not the nuns fine sport with the friars now and then?’ Friar Jacomo (Matthew Kelly) and Friar Barnadine (Geoffrey Freshwater) are excellent – slimy, smirking, seedy and greedy.

The current production makes Barabas more sympathetic by having him enter holding baby, leading ceremonial march of Jewish men, and singing (I think) a Hebrew lullaby. Likewise, before the madness of his vengeance takes control, his relationship with his daughter Abigail is both warm and realistic. Barabas’ vengeance stems from what appears to be almost a nervous breakdown in this version, brilliantly portrayed by Jasper Britton, whose complex and charismatic Barabas is outstanding. In contrast, the original text makes the change less comprehensible: Barabas begins as a contemptible Jew and then becomes a rampaging pantomime villain. Shylock’s resentment is realised much more fully. Shylock realises he is hated by the Venetians (‘I am not bid for love’), so his anger (‘thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause’) is understandable (especially when is tipped over the edge by the elopement of his daughter with his ducats). Barabas’ justifications are less clear-cut (though having all of your wealth confiscated because of your race and religion is hardly a trivial matter), but this RSC adaptation accentuates the daily humiliations poured on Barabas by his Christian neighbours, ranging from mocking laughter, to spitting on him, to physical violence. All this serves to make us sympathise with Barabas. Likewise, Barabas’ joyful, cheeky laughter on seeing Abigail dressed as a fake nun and laughing like a schoolboy with Ithamore (admittedly after wiping out a nunnery) is endearing. And, though evil, he is at least multi-talented: miser, murderer, trader, engineer, governor, lautist. Barabas is simply too immoral to be real, and has no problems pretending to convert to Christianity to further his ends, whereas for Shylock conversion is a real punishment. Barabas is closest to Richard III – except he has more justification for his hatred and he is a lot funnier in the way he goes about his vengeance, like the House of Cards’ Frank Underwood on coke.

Nevertheless, Barabas is a caricature of everything anti-Semites accused the Jews of doing, which makes him much less subtle than Shylock. It is tempting to think that these traits were played up to play them down, in effect to be such a parody of anti-Jewish tropes that the anti-Semitic tropes appear nonsensical to any sane observer. This might be the case or it might not (it doesn’t take much research to discover that anti-Semites today seem to seriously entertain some absurd beliefs about Jews). Still, perhaps carried away on a wave of Barabas’ charisma or suffering from a surfeit of post-modern irony, I don’t think Barabas’ confession to Ithamore is supposed to be taken seriously:

            As for myself, I walk abroad o’nights
            And kill sick people groaning under walls:
            Sometimes I go about and poison wells…

Did the original audience believe such wild libels or, like the Swan Theatre’s twenty-first century audience, did they think that Barabas was taking advantage of anti-Jewish gullibility (in this case to impress an anti-Christian Muslim)? In other places, Barabas does use others’ preconceptions of Jewish difference for his own ends (e.g. saying that Abigail’s weeping over an unhappy engagement is really a Jewish custom). Ithamore responds with his own tall tales of anti-Christian atrocities – although in the age of IS, perhaps I should not be so quick to discount their intended earnestness.

Marlowe was writing in the English morality play tradition and, although he introduced some innovations in melding this genre with that of tragedy, and in adding the heavy dose of dark humour, his characters remained as representations lessons or types, rather than people. Shakespeare took the Marlovian original theme, and enhanced it using folk tales, classical allusions and techniques and a greater emphasis on well-rounded characters, in a fusion of English and Renaissance attributes to create something new and brilliant. So the humanity in this production usually comes from the talent of the actors. Andy Apollo as Ludowick is suitably posh and irritating as the governor’s son – ensuring we had no sympathy for his death. Colin Ryan as Don Mathias is also irritating, but too boyish and not attractive enough to be an authentic love interest for the beautiful Abigail (Catrin Stewart). Lanre Malalou acted well as Ithamore but he played it too slavish, too damaged, as if he has suffered a lifetime of abuse and slavery: facial tics, stooping, stuttering, but he was only just enslaved, according to the Spanish admiral he was captured shortly before being sold on Malta. Either they have seen ‘slave’ and fitted all our modern guilt and hang-ups into the term, or the actor is a believer in Homer’s idea that Zeus ‘takes away half of a man's virtue, when the day of slavery comes upon him’ (Odyssey). The problem was the approach rather than the technique. The battle scenes were somewhat weak. Over-stylized and choreographed, they are like a line dance or something the Jets and the Sharks might get up to in West Side Story.

Overall, the Swan’s Jew of Malta is highly recommended – it is brisk, there is plenty of action, the play’s timely themes are cleverly engaged with, and this performance uses a high level of physicality to highlight nuance (rather than to simply get cheap laughs, although there are plenty of laughs too). The acting is of a high quality and the director’s interpretation has reached the perfect balance between black humour and tragedy. After such a spirited and thoughtful adaptation of Marlowe’s great Jewish comic tragedy, expectations are high and mounting for the RSC’s latest production of Shakespeare’s great, Jewish, tragic comedy in May.

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